Author: KONSTANTIN RICHTER
BERLIN — There’s nothing Angela Merkel hates more than surprises. The German chancellor tends to spend a lot of time preparing for important events. And this week’s trip to Washington will be no exception.
Merkel can be expected, for her first meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump, to immerse herself in academic papers, economic data and plenty of other reading material. She might even flip through a couple of biographies to get a better understanding of what he’s like and how he conquered the White House.
Trump, on the other hand, isn’t known for diligent prepping. Chances are that he’ll come into the meeting relatively uninformed — or “open-minded,” as he would put it — and that he won’t form an opinion of her until they sit down together. But what if the U.S. president decides to take this meeting a little more seriously and wants to read up on
Merkel? This is the world’s most powerful man meeting the world’s most powerful woman, after all.
What would it take for Trump to win over a fellow world leader who is, in many respects, his opposite? Here are a couple of talking points for turning a potentially deeply awkward encounter into a stimulating exchange and — why not — saving the transatlantic alliance.
* * *
Merkel and Trump both came to politics late in life. But that’s where the similarities end. He was a New York City-based real estate magnate, she worked in quantum chemistry in East Germany. Although her former job as a physicist isn’t at all related to what she does now, Merkel likes to pretend that politics is a kind of science, too. She loves facts, numbers, data — anything that has the ring of empirical evidence. In interviews, she often claims that scientific thinking is a constant source of inspiration, mentioning complex theories such as the law of conservation of energy and mass.
No need for the president to be unduly impressed. But it surely wouldn’t hurt if he took the German chancellor by surprise and came up with some scientific ideas of his own.
He could talk about the need for “a semipermeable membrane” in global trade, or try to liken his controversial travel ban to the functioning of a “hermetic detector in particle physics.” Or whatever else comes to mind.
* * *
A former citizen of communist East Germany, Merkel spent her first 35 years behind the Iron Curtain. For a while, she lived in Berlin’s Marienstraße, only a stone’s throw away from the inner German border. As a result, she doesn’t much like walls. When she was awarded the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011, she explained what being walled in felt like and why freedom is important to her.
The new U.S. president, who wants to put up a wall of his own, should listen politely to her concerns and then point out the difference. His wall is not meant to lock anyone in, just keep people out.
In the course of their discussion, Merkel might also refer to another wall, the Great Wall of China, arguing (as she has done in the past) that the Chinese empire went into decline because it spent all its resources on the construction. The president would be well-advised to brush up on his Chinese history and refute that theory.
“Oh, come on, Angela,” he might say, laughing amiably. “The mighty Ming and Qing dynasties didn’t crumble because of a wall,” and then launch into an expansive recounting of the rise and fall of imperial China. Or he could simply state that times have changed since then. Building a wall no longer requires a lot of intellectual resources. It’s just expensive, that’s all.
Trump has, on various occasions, referred to the size of the crowds attending his rallies. He also likes to remind people of the magnificence of his worldly possessions. Both of these are no-go topics when he meets Merkel. The German chancellor doesn’t like facing big crowds, even when they’re applauding her.
As a Lutheran pastor’s daughter, she takes pride in a certain modesty. When she was elected chancellor in 2005, she rejected a move somewhere fancy, opting instead to remain in her old rental apartment in Berlin’s city center. On weekends, she often retreats to her holiday home in the Brandenburg countryside — a building so small that people refer to it as Merkel’s Datsche, the German term for a cottage. She has also claimed that she considers her monthly salary of €19,000, meager by Trumpian standards, to be more than enough.
What the U.S. president needs to understand here is that modesty can be a source of pride, too. In protestant Germany, there are many people who constantly point out how little they need and how much they despise other people’s wealth. Trump doesn’t need to approve of the underlying sentiment. But he could try to humor the German chancellor a little.
Donald Trump the show-off millionaire, he might say, for instance, is just a public persona. In truth, he wouldn’t mind trading the soulless Trump Tower for a cozy Datsche in the East German countryside. He could also quote the great American thinker Henry David Thoreau, who said that all he needed for his happiness was a cabin with three chairs, “one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society.”
* * *
Merkel, regrettably, lacks Trump’s talent for giving rousing speeches. Instead, she often loses herself in convoluted sentences no one understands. In fact, the U.S. president may not always be able to follow the German chancellor when she talks. But that shouldn’t unsettle him. Merkel, who can be refreshingly direct at times, resorts to complicated rhetoric when she feels insecure or uncomfortable.
If the president wants communication to flow freely, he should make her feel at home in Washington. A humble lunch of meatballs and potato salad is one way of making that happen. Merkel loves meatballs and potato salad. She also loves stuffed cabbage leaves. Tricky conversations about the danger of mass migration will run much more smoothly if stuffed cabbage leaves are on the menu.
* * *
One last thing: When Merkel visits other world leaders, she often brings along some Meissen china as a gift. That provides Trump with a great opening for a little joke. He could surprise Merkel with a gift of his own, the bronze statue of a charging bull. Why the bull? Well, the subtle reference to Trump’s image as a bull in the china shop of global diplomacy would surely not be lost on Merkel.
It’s just the kind of self-deprecating humor that would loosen up the German chancellor and make her feel much better about the new White House resident. The two of them would have a good laugh together and … who knows what happens next. In today’s politics, anything seems possible. This week’s meeting in Washington might just turn out to be the beginning of a wonderfully special relationship.